In the Zone: The Zen of Sports

Mystics and poets aren’t the only people who experience the transcendent. Andy Cooper on sports beyond conventional mind.

Andrew Cooper
1 September 2020

Right away, you could see the streak was over. As he turned and headed back upcourt, Michael Jordan looked over at network announcer Magic Johnson and shrugged, as if to say, “It’s beyond me. It’s just happening by itself!”

It was the first game of the 1992 NBA finals, the Bulls against Portland. His Airness had just sunk his sixth consecutive three-pointer, and in that moment it appeared as though even he was overwhelmed by the immensity of his gift.

And that was the giveaway. He had become self-conscious, and so he had lost that edge, that intensity of concentration in which limitations are forgotten and the spirit is set free to soar. Even for Michael Jordan, visiting hours on Olympus are limited.

Michael Jordan is no common athlete, and his shooting display was certainly no common feat. But for all its spectacle, his experience-its nature, its inner life-is not that unusual, after all.

The zone. All athletes know it, strive for it, prize its attainment. It is that realm of play in which everything-skill, training and mental discipline-comes together, and players feel themselves lifted to a level of peak performance in which limits seem to fall away.

Several miles and countless worlds away from Jordan’s Chicago home court, a University of Chicago psychology professor, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, had recently gathered the results of twenty-five years of research into a book that sheds more light on Jordan’s performance than you are likely to find in any sports column.

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi identifies a self-surpassing dimension of human experience that is recognized by people the world over, regardless of culture, gender, race, or nationality. Its characteristics include deep concentration, highly efficient performance, emotional buoyancy, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self-consciousness, and self-transcendence. Csikszentmihalyi calls the experience “flow”; today’s athlete calls it being in “the zone.”

The zone. All athletes know it, strive for it, prize its attainment. It is that realm of play in which everything-skill, training and mental discipline-comes together, and players feel themselves lifted to a level of peak performance in which limits seem to fall away.

The zone is the essence and pinnacle of the athletic experience, for it reveals that, at their root, sports are a theater for enacting the drama of self-transcendence. Athletes and fans alike, focused as we so often are on the game of winning and losing, miss the deeper significance that is right before our eyes. But in the zone, the extraordinary capacities that lie within each individual are made manifest. To grasp this hidden dimension is to transform the very meaning of athletic play.

Perhaps because moments in the zone are too compelling, too uncanny, too verging on the mystical, most athletes and sports journalists have been reluctant to address the experience in depth. But while those at the center of sports culture are reticent, a growing number of researchers are investigating the zone for what it can reveal about human motivation, development and potential. Sports psychologists, now fixtures in the high-pressure world of professional sports, draw upon visualization and meditation techniques in order to help athletes cultivate the concentration and calm that are prerequisites of the experience.

Sports psychology demonstrates that consciousness plays an essential role in athletic training. But the zone is about much more than the goal of peak performance. It provides a touchstone for approaching athletics as a spiritual path. Though largely forgotten in contemporary culture, this understanding has been part of sports throughout history, from the Olympic games of ancient Greece to the marathon runners of Native America to the Ways of the martial arts.

The zone. The term is a fairly new development in the lexicon of sports culture, perhaps ten or twelve years old. It denotes a place, as in the dictionary definition, but much more than that. It calls up imagery of the supernatural (“the twilight zone”) and carries an implicit connection to altered states of consciousness (“zoned out” or “lost in the ozone”), a connection made explicit by less popular related terms: “He was playing out of his mind.” “She went unconscious.”

But the zone, with its rich ambiguity and layers of meaning, says it best. It is indeed a place, but a map won’t get you there.

While the term is recent, the experience it points to is not. In his autobiography, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, Bill Russell evokes the “mystical feeling” that would on occasion lift the action on the hardwood to the level of magic:

At that special level all sorts of odd things happened…. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, “It’s coming there!”-except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me.

As compelling as these experiences were, Russell says he never spoke about them: “I felt a little weird about it, and quite private.” The subject was taboo, and he knew that breaking that taboo would invite the mockery of his peers.

The situation has changed since Russell’s playing days, but not all that much. Today, athletes and sportswriters will frequently allude to the zone, but rarely will they pursue its implications. San Francisco sports writer Scott Ostler says he has tried on occasion to pursue the subject with athletes only to be met with blank stares, “like I was weird for asking.” Perhaps the weirdest thing about the zone is the reticence that surrounds it.

Former NFL linebacker Dave Meggyesy echoes Russell’s view that the sports world is simply not a very hospitable place to talk about something so intensely personal and out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, he says, “the zone is the essence of the athletic experience, and those moments of going beyond yourself are the underlying allure of sport.”

Meggyesy is now the West Coast representative of the NFL Players Association. The cramped bookshelves in his San Francisco office attest to the workings of a searching intelligence, whose interests range from contract law to Jungian psychology. Meggyesy regards the term “the zone” as a general one, referring to a spectrum of exceptional experiences-perceptions, states of consciousness and levels of performance-with varying degrees of intensity. Taken together, these experiences exemplify an innate tendency to surpass one’s limits. For Meggyesy, sports are, at their heart, a way to unlock the hidden possibilities of self-transcendence.

Most anyone who has worked hard in some field of play can recall a moment of astonishment, when all of it—body, mind and the skill that runs through both—came together and the boundaries of possibility seemed to open wide before one’s eyes.

As a culture, we have come to associate epiphanies, revelations, and the like with poetic revelry, profound introspection, or communion with nature. But it is a fact that profound and extraordinary experiences are extremely common in athletics, perhaps more so than in any other field of endeavor. The passions that athletics arouse, the physical demands they make, and the mental focus they require bring to bear our most exceptional abilities.

Despite our skepticism, athletics provoke us to magic. This is the hidden dimension of sport, its secret culture. The philosopher Michael Novak wrote that, “This is one of the great secrets of sport. There is a certain point of unity within the self, and between the self and its world, a certain complicity and magnetic mating, a certain harmony, that conscious mind and will cannot direct…. The discovery takes one’s breath away.”

But it is not really that well-kept a secret. Most anyone who has worked hard in some field of play can recall a moment of astonishment, when all of it—body, mind and the skill that runs through both—came together and the boundaries of possibility seemed to open wide before one’s eyes. In these moments of pure and effortless intuition, everything you do seems to turn to gold. I still savor a few such long-ago moments— on a basketball court, a soccer field, a ski slope—with the same vivid detail as I recall my first kiss.

One does not have to be a player to sense this. As a writer Larry Shainberg observes, “Our fascination with the zone, and indeed with sport in general, may be due, in part at least, to the possibilities it reveals, the energy and strength and flexibility of the organism when liberated from its ordinary neurological and psychological constraints.” As spectators, we are drawn irresistibly by the thrill of witnessing the drama of selfsurpassing play. Athletics awaken and invite us to our own exceptional possibilities. We recognize our own surpassing self in the actions of another.

Years ago, Yogi Berra observed, “Ninety percent of hitting is mental, the other half is physical.” Today, it appears the rest of the sports world is catching up to the wisdom of the Bronx sage.

For many of today’s athletes, psychological preparation has become as necessary a part of training as physical conditioning, perfecting one’s skills, and learning strategy. Among the long list of high-profile athletes who have worked with sports psychologists are tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Jim Courier, pitcher John Smoltz, gold medal speed skater Dan Jansen, and boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

For many, like figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, the benefits of sports psychology are something to swear by. (And one can’t help but wonder what a little time on the couch would have done for Tonya Harding’s career.) Others have no use for it, like Olympic champion swimmer Summer Sanders, for whom the therapist’s couch was nothing more than a place to catch up on some z’s.

While the techniques and insights of sports psychology may not be for everyone, the growing recognition in the athletic world is that they can enhance players’ skills and help them work through the obstacles to peak performance. As the chairman of the sports medicine committee for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, Dr. Craig McQueen, says, “Practicing in your mind is as valuable as practicing on ice.”

Of course, for coaches and athletes the idea of psychological preparation—getting motivated, getting “psyched”—is not altogether new. But the approach has generally been lurching and intuitive, based on personal idiosyncracy and tradition rather than a testable shared body of knowledge. Coaches use discipline, cajolery, intimidation and inspiration to encourage their players, but their effectiveness is largely hit or miss. Even the best motivational speech has a brief lifespan if it fails to grasp the nature of the person to whom it is addressed. It is not that traditional techniques of motivation are wrong; they are just incomplete.

As any visit to a pre-game locker room will attest, players know instinctively the importance of mental focus, and they employ all manner of methods for getting psyched up. According to Dave Meggyesy, for those athletes playing at the highest levels the ability to put oneself in a state of heightened concentration is as essential as physical ability, technical mastery, and knowledge of the game. Warm-up drills are not just for loosening the body but also for focusing the mind.

This helps explain the often bizarre pre-game rituals of top-level athletes, such as former Stanford basketball star Val Whiting, who before each home game would have a friend stand in the exact same spot in front of her dorm and wish her good luck. Or Meggyesy himself, who would tie and untie his shoelaces twenty or more times prior to kick-off. “If you had asked me why, I’d have said that it just didn’t feel right. But this sort of ritual activity is part of the process of mental preparation. It helps induce a state of consciousness.” It might also have been a good way of “binding” the anxiety of pre-game jitters. While psychological preparation is not new, what is new (5r at least relatively recent) is the systematic study and development of techniques for doing it more effectively. But the novelty of sports psychology is not just in relation to athletics; it is something of a new twist on psychology as well.

The task for a sports psychologist is clearly defined: to enhance the performance of the athlete. Traditional clinical concerns—individuation, building ego strength, integration of repressed material and the like—are relevant only insofar as they affect performance. Athletes can be as quirky and nutty as ever, provided such traits are not interfering with what they actually do.
Yet the psyche is a whole, not just the sum of discrete parts. And so there is bound to be some overlap, as in the case of Oakland A’s slugger Mark McGwire, who says of his decision to work with a sports psychologist, “It’s the best decision I’ve made in my life. There are a lot of people who go a whole lifetime without knowing who they are, what they are, what they want…. It took me twenty-eight years to find out who I am and what I want. So I’m very happy about it.”

Like their clinical counterparts, sports psychologists work with their clients on two fronts: working through mental obstructions and building up strengths. Bruce Ogilvie, professor emeritus at San Jose State and widely acknowledged as the dean of the field, speaks of the former as going after “the beast within”:

Elite golfers, baseball pitchers, place kickers, they can go into phases where they can’t hit the broad side of a bam. In practice, they can nail the sucker, then it’s just gone. Their legs go to rubber. It may be because of a relationship off the field or with the coach, or maybe they missed two shots and have lost confidence. Something gets in their mental computer.

Getting the psychic circuitry back on line is only half the story. The other part is developing the kind of concentration and energy characteristic of the zone.

Keith Henschen of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, himself a leader in the field, addresses this part of the equation in a discussion with Larry Shainberg: “No one can reach such levels by snapping their fingers, but the purpose of the exercises I use is to help an athlete get to the zone more frequently.”

However, not all sports psychologists agree with Henschen’s premise that zone experience can be cultivated. Bob Rotella, who specializes in working with golfers, says, “It happens when it happens,” and thinking about it just gets in the way of its occurring at all. And he’s got a point. Self-transcendence, an essential characteristic of the zone, cannot be produced by force of will. As any musician, meditator, or martial artist can tell you, if the self tries to go beyond itself, it just creates more…well, more self. No bootstrap principle applies.

We would love to bottle the zone, but it can’t be done. Visualization, meditation, counseling, progressive relaxation, and the other techniques of sports psychology can help enhance performance, but they cannot produce the zone.

Mastery of one’s craft and intense concentration are necessary, but they are not sufficient. For if there is one defining characteristic of the zone, a sine qua non, it is that it is effortless and unpredictable, a kind of state of grace. You cannot get into the zone through an act of will; you can only prepare the ground for it to happen. To quote a Zen master, “Enlightenment is an accident, but some activities make you accident prone.”

The zone is not produced by effort, yet without effort nothing happens. So the question becomes, how does one prepare the ground? What kind of effort leads beyond self-conscious effort? The answer is subtle, at least to the ego, whose habit is to go directly after what it wants. That approach might work for a lot of things, but it won’t work in the case of the zone. Readiness for the zone depends on the cultivation of three components: skill, devotion and immersion.

To appreciate and take delight in the ordering of mind and body that the game imposes brings one fully into the activity. You’ve got to love the game.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the flow experience happens “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits” in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. What makes that stretching possible is the development of the necessary level of skill. Obviously, as in any field, some are more naturally gifted than others in athletic ability. But regardless of one’s level of innate ability, without the disciplined cultivation of skill, potential will remain unfulfilled.

With greater skill comes a greater ability both to channel one’s energy into the task at hand and to respond fully to the demands for action. In his portrait of Bill Bradley’s brilliant basketball career at Princeton, A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee describes the passion for detail that all top athletes share, and for which Bradley was famous:

“There are five parts to the hook shot,” [Bradley] explains to anyone who asks. As he continues, he picks up a ball and stands about eighteen feet from a basket. “Crouch,” he says, crouching, and goes on to demonstrate the other moves. “Turn your head to look for the basket, step, kick, follow through with your arms.”

Once, as he was explaining this to me, the ball curled around the rim and failed to go in. “What happened then?” I asked him. “I didn’t kick high enough,” he said. “Do you always know exactly why you’ve missed a shot?” “Yes,” he said, missing another one.

“What happened that time?”

“I was talking to you. I didn’t concentrate. The secret of shooting is concentration.”

This anecdote also hints at the second component to be cultivated: devotion to the game. To play with inspiration, one must give oneself over to the craft of one’s game. It is no different for athletes than it is for artists. I am reminded of a story about a famous writer who was approached by an eager undergraduate wanting to know the Secret of being a writer herself. After a few moments thought, the answer came: “Well, do you love words?”

Just as words are the basic stuff of a writer’s craft, so are the body’s rehearsed and ritualized movements the stuff of the athlete’s craft. To appreciate and take delight in the ordering of mind and body that the game imposes brings one fully into the activity. You’ve got to love the game.

Only when the first two conditions are met can the third one be met as well: immersion in the activity. An archer who is worried about missing the target will miss it. A batter who is thinking about whether he will steal second will not make it to first. The name of the game is to set the busyness of the mind aside and fully bring one’s attention to bear on the immediate task at hand. Professional archer Tim Strickland told Shainberg,

Your conscious mind always wants to help you, but usually it messes you up. But you can’t just set it aside. You’ve got to get it involved. The thing you have to do is anchor it in technique. Then your unconscious mind, working with your motor memory, will take over the shooting for you.

Or as baseball Hail-of-Famer Tim McCarver says, “The mind’s a great thing as long as you don’t have to use it.” This is the concentration athletes all seek: anchored in technique, rooted in the body, focused on the task at hand, the conscious mind shuts off, deliberate intent is transcended, and the self seems to fall away. The conditions are ripe for the zone.